In 1934 the United States established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent agency regulating interstate and international communications by television, wire, radio, satellite, and cable. Among its purposes, which include media regulation and enforcing a competitive communications framework, the FCC is also responsible for registering and resolving complaints lodged by individual consumers. The process for filing and overseeing resolution of informal complaints is straightforward and progressive and it provides a simple method for consumers to ensure their complaints are heard and addressed.
Issues Outside of the FCC's Jurisdiction
The FCC handles a wide range of telecommunications service and billing issues. However, there are some issues that, while they appear to fall under the FCC's purview, actually fall under the jurisdiction of other agencies by law. For example:
- the Federal Trade Commission handles false advertising, deceptive business practices, and scams;
- the Department of Justice manages antitrust issues;
- the Food and Drug Administration regulates disclaimers on medical advertisements; and
- copyright violations and payments of royalties are governed by the U.S. Copyright Office .
State level public utility commissions, found at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, are also responsible for other issues including:
- burying telephone or cable wires;
- local phone service having no dial tone;
- stand-alone satellite television billing, rates, and programming;
- non-bundled service installation;
- non-telecommunications utilities; and
- stand-alone cable TV service, rates and programming (not including basic tier).
Informal Complaint Process
Complaints filed through the FCC's Consumer Complaint Center are labeled as informal complaints. There is no fee for filing an informal complaint. Consumers should compile some information prior to filing the complaint such as: the name and address of the company against which the complaint is made, a complete statement of facts including copies of any information which would help explain the facts, and the specific resolution sought.
Consumers may file complaints in any areas regulated by the FCC, including:
- access for people with disabilities; and
- emergency communications.
The website will direct the consumer to a series of complaint questions related to their concern. They must fill in some required information, including an issue description and contact information, before they can submit the complaint. Once the consumer complaint has been submitted they will receive a notification from the FCC acknowledging the submission. When a complaint is received via the Consumer Complaint Center, it is reviewed, logged into the Enforcement Division's tracking system, then "served" on the service provider identified in the complaint. The provider is directed to investigate the complaint and to report the results of that investigation, in writing, to the FCC within 30 days.
The complainant will be given a tracking number and receive periodic emails about the status of the complaint. An FCC consumer representative may also be in contact if more information is necessary to complete the complaint. When all required information has been gathered, the FCC will either provide the consumer with relevant educational material or send their complaint to the service provider. The provider is then required to respond in writing to the complaint within 30 days of receipt and must provide the complainant with a copy of the response. The provider may also contact the complainant in an effort to resolve the issue.
Upon receipt by the FCC, the provider's response is reviewed to ensure the company addressed all of the issues raised in the complaint and that the provider's actions are consistent with relevant Commission Rules. If it appears that the company is not in compliance with the Commission Rules, the FCC will take appropriate action. If the FCC finds the company has not violated the relevant Commission's Rules, no further action will be taken.
Telephone Consumer Protection Act Exception
The only exception to the usual informal complaint protocol deals with complaints about loud commercials, auto-dialers, robocalls, the Do Not Call List, unwanted telephone calls, unsolicited faxes, and other issues covered by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). These complaints are not served but are shared among FCC bureaus and offices. Complainants will not receive status updates on these issues. However, information from consumers may lead to FCC investigations and serves as a deterrent to the companies regulated by the TCPA.
Formal Complaint Process
If a complainant is dissatisfied with the provider's response to an informal complaint or the FCC's disposition of that complaint, a formal complaint may then be filed within six months of the response date to the informal complaint. Formal complaints must be filed in the manner prescribed in the FCC Rules and must show facts establishing a violation of the Telecommunications Act or an FCC Rule. Formal complaints are heard very much like court proceedings. This fact, along with the requirement that allegations in a formal complaint be sufficiently developed in compliance with the FCC's Rules and case law, means that formal complaints often require the assistance of counsel. Though parties filing formal complaints usually have attorney representation, no attorneys fees may be awarded upon completion of the proceedings.
Before filing a formal complaint the complainant is asked to contact the staff at the FCC's Enforcement Bureau. Then the formal complaint must be filed with a $225.00 filing fee. Sections 1.720 through 1.735 of the FCC's rules and sections 8.12-8.17 (for Open Internet Complaints ) provide complete information and requirements on filing formal complaints.
The FCC has provided consumers with an efficient, clear framework for addressing complaints they may have with service providers. By following the informal complaint protocol, a complainant will either receive satisfactory resolution of their issue or be given the framework for escalating the complaint to a higher level of review. This process ensures a full hearing on the facts of the situation and an opportunity for the consumer, the provider, and the FCC to fully evaluate the facts of the situation in determining whether a violation has occurred.